News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Letter from Portland Slumlord Geoffrey Rice’s Lawyer

With a response by the author of the story

by | Jan 13, 2022

I was disappointed to read your lead article for the November edition, “Slumlord Millionaire,” about landlord Geoffrey Rice. I am reluctant to respond for fear of being targeted for drive-by attack journalism after reading this hot mess.

What entitles me to opine about your article? I say let your readers judge. First, I am a reader of Mainer and The Bollard before that.

Secondly, I have known Geoffrey Rice for over 30 years. Mr. Rice is a client and a friend. He is loyal and fair. I have attended his daughter’s wedding and Rebecca Rice’s (Geoffrey’s mother) funeral service and internment. I was at Sandra Rice’s (Geoffrey’s sister) bedside in the days before her death. I am a close observer of Geoffrey’s business and business practices. I do not claim objectivity.

Lastly, I met with Hollis McLaughlin to discuss his 20-year tenancy at the 657 [Congress St.; a.k.a. Trelawny] Building. In short, I am a material witness to those events, and I can offer some real facts and insight into his thinking.

I enjoyed reading about the origins of Mr. McLaughlin’s unique personality and your assumptions (armchair analysis) of his disabilities. Hollis was energetic, funny, peculiar and self-centered, in the way that people on the spectrum can be. (Full disclosure: my daughter is autistic, and her friends are on the spectrum.)

Unfortunately, you then just made stuff up. You missed the most important elements of the story. In 2015, I interviewed Hollis in order to try to negotiate conditions for him to stay at the Trelawny Building. Hollis lost his prior apartment on Congress Street 25 years ago when the building he lived in was destroyed in a fire. Hollis explained to me that he’d been desperate and unable to find a place to live. Somehow, he found Rebecca Rice, the family matriarch, and she gave him an apartment in the Trelawny Building.

Hollis performed odd jobs in exchange for rent, mostly sweeping and/or shoveling the front walk at 657 Congress St. He was grateful for the arrangement and grateful that he did not have a fixed schedule. Hollis could work for anyone up and down Congress Street performing the same tasks and never worry about losing his apartment because he always had a place to live.

How did I know he was grateful? He told me so. Moreover, he lived in that apartment for nearly 20 years.

Following Rebecca’s death in 2010, Geoffrey continued the arrangement with Hollis for six years. Hollis’ tenancy was terminated for reasons that will remain unstated, out of respect for Mr. McLaughlin, now deceased. Let’s just say that hygiene was not a priority for Hollis, and it became a serious problem. He was a hoarder who collected old radios. He was given several polite warnings before a notice to quit was issued.

The article gives no information about sources of information for the story, but somehow concludes that Hollis was “mercilessly exploited for decades” by Geoffrey Rice. If this is merciless exploitation, sign me up. Hollis occupied a modest efficiency apartment on Longfellow Square for 20 years or more, for free, in exchange for light duty and limited hours, about four or five hours per week. Unlike most wage earners paying rent in the city, he was happy and engaged and secure. He felt productive. And he begged to stay in the building. And I have sources: Hollis McLaughlin, Rebecca Rice, and workers and tenants in the building, who are familiar with the relationship. The editor cherry-picked a few secondhand sources, some of whom have their own axes to grind, no doubt.

Hollis McLaughlin (left) at the Senior Citizens Barber Shop, on Congress Street, with barber Norman Millette. photo/John Duncan

Finally, you would never know it from the article, but Hollis was represented by very capable attorneys who settled his wage claims quietly. It was obvious to them that the math did not support a claim for wages. Hollis was an extremely reluctant litigant. He was a grateful tenant. He simply did not want to move out of the Trelawny Building. The entire episode was painful for Geoffrey Rice, and me, and I had hoped for a better outcome, perhaps one in which Hollis would get some help in the form of social services that might allow him to stay in the building.* Mr. Rice is the landlord in the Trelawny Building with 102 units. He owes a duty of reasonable use and enjoyment to all of the 113 odd tenants in the building.

The article is downright schizophrenic relative to the condition of the buildings and the needs of the tenant class in Portland. Further, when the article is not inconsistent, it gets the facts wrong. Let me explain.

Almost everyone I have met in Portland has at one time or another lived in a Rice Family building. Most of these buildings are located on major thoroughfares in the city: Congress Street, State Street and Cumberland Avenue. Most of the apartments in these buildings are occupied by students, artists, restaurant workers, critical workforce, and others who choose to live in the city and need almost affordable housing.

No two buildings are alike. The article lists about 30 properties and mixes up buildings that are occupied with buildings that are unoccupied and adds a dash of tenant union complaints. Voila: the author concludes that Geoffrey Rice is a “slumlord.” Sensationalism at its worst.

Here’s the truth. Mr. Rice owns or manages a significant number of residential multi-unit buildings in Portland. Most of the buildings are well-maintained and suitable for the purpose for which they were designed. The 59 State St. building, to take one, has 42 units and a vacancy rate of zero. The rents are lower than most in the city for comparable square footage. Rent increases have been modest. Geoffrey dislikes vacancies, and he sets his rents accordingly.

The 602 Congress St. building [a.k.a. the Schwartz Building, at the corner of Congress and High streets] is vacant. What your article does not state is that Mr. Rice has invested over $2 million to replace the roof, the HVAC, the windows, and to rehab 12 apartments and first-floor commercial space while restoring plaster and bespoke staircases and a new elevator, tile work and other historic details. He also brought in new power to the building, gas and electric, now tied into neighboring properties owned by other property owners. The 602 building reopens in the spring of 2022. Reading your article, Geoffrey is an exploitative slumlord. Note to editor: 602 Congress St. has no tenants.

This year, Geoffrey will spend almost $2 million for sprinklering 657 Congress St. and 59 State St. Next year he will expend another $1 million on tuckpointing at 657 and 602 Congress St. I have assured him that the Portland Rent Control Board will allow him to increase rents to cover some or all of the costs, but rent control limits the landlord to a 5 percent rent increase for capital improvements. Do the math: that is a $60 annual increase for a typical $1,200 rental, for capital investments of $3 million.

Then consider what will happen if Mr. Rice sells these historic properties: more condominiums, more “market rate” rents, less housing available for Portland’s working citizens. The lesson: be careful what you wish for.

Geoff Rice is not an out-of-state conglomerate, and he is not a real estate “flipper” out to make a quick buck. He has never converted a single unit in his buildings to condominiums. In many cases, he has purchased distressed properties and brought them back to the rental market.

Finally, the snarky tone of your article (some would call it libelous) skips over the real story of the Rice Family, an American success story. If Geoffrey were to appear on Finding Your Roots, the PBS program about family histories, they would uncover a history of Russian Jewish immigrants. Harry Rice was a baker from Boston. Geoffrey’s parents, Harry and Rebecca Rice, ran a successful bakery for decades. They purchased some real estate, including the Trelawny Building on Congress Street and Stateway Apartments on State Street, back when Portland was a depressed backwater. Geoffrey learned the business and invested in the real estate business, and acquired several more buildings on his own account. In fact, Geoffrey purchased far more properties than were given to him.

Through all of the cycles, including the worst downturns in recent history (1980-1981 and 1990-1995 and 2008-2016), he did not sell. He refused to sell. His patience and hard work have made him successful. When the Adams House at 706 Congress St. was destroyed by fire in the early ’90s, he rejected my advice to create parking and he rebuilt instead.

For the past 30 years, Geoffrey Rice has employed 15 to 20 local people in his office in the business of building maintenance and rental. Many local non-profits and charities have worked hand-in-glove with Mr. Rice to place some would-be homeless people in Rice Family properties. And in all the years that I have advised Geoff Rice, he has not been successfully sued by a tenant for conditions in his properties (fire, slip and fall, wrongful retention of deposits, unlawful terminations, etc.).

In sum, his family has given back to the Portland community in ways that are not reported about in the newspapers or other media, and which I am not at liberty to share.

Before you run an attack piece of this nature, you should follow basic journalistic principles: confirm your information with multiple sources, don’t guess about hard data without hard data, check available court records (including City Hall tax records, the Probate Court and the Registry of Deeds). Give the target a real opportunity to comment. Don’t speculate if you cannot confirm essential information. Don’t make shit up.

To state the obvious, truthiness is not truth. Thank you for printing my response. 

Paul S. Bulger
South Portland

*One of the great failings of our system of free legal services is that we can litigate evictions and wage claims to death, but when I tell my counterparts at Pine Tree Legal that a tenant with a diminished capacity needs supportive housing, not litigation, they shrug or say nothing. I am not criticizing PTL; I have met the enemy and the enemy is us, a society that turns away from the mentally ill and the disabled.

The Reporter Responds

Ah, yes, Paul Bulger, Esq., a lawyer who’s represented not only slumlord Geoffrey Rice, but convicted bookie and fellow slumlord Steve Mardigan, both of whom have paid thug Frankie Fournier to beat up poor people who owe them money. I appreciate the professional tone of Paul’s response. Mr. Fournier, by contrast, responded to our story about Rice by expressing on social media the “hope [that] you have kids and family in the area and that someday someone makes it their personal ambition to ruin all your lives (like you attempt to do),” further pledging to “support” the ruination of my family “any way I can.” (Good luck with that, asshole.) 

Frankie (a.k.a. Danny) Fournier, Portland thug who beat up poor people and threatened the family of our reporter. photo/via Facebook

Mr. Bulger is correct that our story contained errors. Specifically, the building at 612 Congress St. was included in the series of addresses covering several contiguous properties which we stated that Rice owned. In fact, Rice owns the parking lot associated with that address, not that specific building. We also reported that former Trelawny tenant Shawn Seaman lost his job in Biddeford when “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap took over the company that employed him; in fact, Seaman lost that job a good while after Dunlap initially slashed the workforce to increase profits. 

Beyond those corrections, we stand by our reporting 100 percent. 

Although none of the rhetorical points in Mr. Bulger’s letter warrant a correction, his comments about Hollis McLaughlin beg for a response. So here’s my response: Fuck you, Paul. 

First off, you “enjoyed reading about the origins of Mr. McLaughlin’s unique personality”? As we reported, Hollis was a victim of vicious child abuse and neglect. Since the story was published I’ve heard from people once close to Hollis, including a sibling, who believe his mental challenges were the result of that abuse, not its cause, but regardless, there’s nothing to enjoy about a toddler being beat up by a parent. 

What really pisses me off is Paul’s shameless victim-blaming with regard to Hollis. I was flabbergasted by his complaint about Hollis’ personal “hygiene.” Among the facts we reported — none of which are refuted by Bulger — was that the room Hollis occupied had no electricity, no running water, no toilet or shower or tub, and that given the strict rules Rice imposes on Trelawny tenants regarding heat and open windows, he could not have controlled the temperature in that room, likely resulting in the sweat-soaked mattress discovered there after his eviction. We quoted someone who saw firsthand that the toilet at the end of the hall Hollis was supposed to use was not working when he was evicted, and may have been broken for months or longer. Seaman told us that those hallway bathrooms also had a tub, but whether that tub was functional, or clean enough to sit in, remains an open question. 

And Hollis had too many “old radios” in that room? What the actual fuck are you talking about, Paul? Or perhaps Mr. Rice can explain: Exactly how many old radios would need to be present in a unit to warrant eviction? Ten? Fifty? One hundred? If none of them is blaring, who the hell cares how many old radios the guy had? That’s absurd.  

Hollis was “grateful” for the room, and “begged to stay in the building”? No shit, Paul. When the alternative is a mat in an overcrowded homeless shelter, or the street, people will be grateful for even a half-habitable room like the one Hollis occupied. And if, as Paul claims, he knew Hollis, then he damn well knew Hollis had neither the resources nor the nerve to challenge Rice or his minions in the office, likely due to the terrible abuse he’d suffered as a child. Rice is a real-estate attorney with a vast fortune at his disposal. The assertion that he’s never been successfully sued by a “working citizen” who sought shelter in one of his low-rent apartments speaks less to Rice’s integrity than to the reality of a “criminal justice” system rigged in favor of the rich. 

I was excited to see Mr. Bulger admit, in print, that Rice appears to have violated labor laws for decades. Unlike Paul and Geoff, I’m not a lawyer, but I doubt it’s legal to employ full- or part-time workers for years without paying any payroll taxes, etc., or accounting for the value of their labor in business tax filings. According to Bulger, Rice maintained this under-the-table arrangement with Hollis for two decades; and according to Seaman, who had a similar arrangement with Rice, many impoverished tenants throughout the years have been sucked into this unethical work-for-rent deal when they were facing eviction. 

Yes, Paul, that’s exploitation. It’s manual labor for which one receives no actual money, no future Social Security benefits, no pay stubs that one can show a lender or another landlord to acquire a loan or another apartment. It’s an arrangement by which the worker/tenant stands to lose both job and shelter simultaneously, at the whim of the boss/landlord who almost literally holds their life in his hands. 

I don’t call cops — who exist to protect property, not people — but perhaps the district attorney or attorney general would be curious to see Mr. Rice’s books and how this shadow labor force he’s maintained for decades has been compensated and accounted for (or not). Then again, like cops, the D.A. and the A.G. are probably also too lazy and cozy with the powerful to initiate such an investigation. Prove me wrong! 

The Schwartz Building is now slated to have tenants next spring? That’s nice, Paul, but as we reported, you and Rice have been promising that will happen for well over 10 years now, so forgive our “snarky” skepticism. It’s also nice that Rice intends to install new sprinklers in the Trelawny Building. Tenants there have been complaining for many months about all the holes drilled into the walls of their apartments, ostensibly for this new sprinkler system, that erode their privacy, allow bugs (and deadly viruses) to easily travel between units, and constitute an ongoing fire hazard. What’s the completion date for this project: 2032? 

No, Paul, I have no more sympathy for Rice than I have for the Devil himself. His invisible contributions to the community, which you are obliged to keep secret for some reason, certainly don’t warrant respect. Nor does the fact that some of the buildings he owns are not dumps (we reported as much), or that he hasn’t sold them or converted apartments into condos to make more money. That’s a ridiculously low bar for responsible property ownership. 

A good place to start establishing oneself — after 60+ years! — as the responsible steward of a real-estate portfolio this large would be to (legally) employ a crew of actual professionals to clean and repair one’s properties, instead of relying on penniless tenants to do such work under threat of homelessness. That’s just a suggestion. Ensuring that chunks of concrete and window panes don’t continue to fall to the sidewalk outside the Trelawny Building is also a good place to start, before we add negligent homicide to the list of Rice’s transgressions. And maybe consider paying your property taxes on time — 320+ liens placed on one’s properties by the city seems a tad high. 

Call this “drive-by attack journalism” or whatever you want, Paul. But thanks for reading. And you too should be careful what you wish for. 

— Chris Busby, editor-in-chief  

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